Traces of Ursula

For this post, I’m taking a detour from the narrative timeline of Ursula’s story to share my experience of finding a gem of a photograph taken when Ursula was either a little girl, or not yet born…

Clara Uphoff Cheshire

Ursula’s mother, Clara Cheshire, and father, Alfred Cheshire (at back in bowler hat), Stockton, CA

I open the Cheshire family photo album and pick up a loose, tiny (2″ x 1.5″) photograph affixed to a thin, textured mat board. It takes me a moment to realize who is in the picture: Sporting a beplumed hat and light-colored ruffled dress, Ursula’s mother, Clara, smiles playfully while looking ahead, as her bowler-hatted, grim-faced husband, Alfred, looks on from behind.

It strikes me that most of the other pictures in the antique album, while beautiful, are carefully posed and static. But, taken on a bustling street, this one captures a candid moment full of life. Its off-kilter angle lends it a sense of energy, and I imagine the sound and movement of Clara and the other people in the street. At the right of the frame, the man in a ruffled shirt and pinstriped suit looks to be in mid-sentence, perhaps talking to the photographer, who stood so close to his subjects that I feel as if I could step into the scene and join the crowd. I love the storefront window with its blocky lettering and wavy reflection of nearby buildings, and the classic edifice across the street.

I turn the photo over. Above the photo studio’s elegantly printed logo, three lines of hand-written script run across the back. They read: “Dr. Burroughs took this of Mother in Stockton during a parade.”

Inscription on back of the photograph

Inscription on back of the photograph

A blend of warmth, excitement and melancholy washes through my belly as I realize that Ursula, herself, wrote these words. I am holding an object she held. I see the same image she saw. I touch the ink that flowed from her fountain pen, and know traces of her fingerprints linger on the cardstock. In Ursula’s invisible presence, I wonder how it can be that I feel so connected to—even love for—a woman who died before I was born, whose blood I do not share, and whose only link to me is a dusty, antique, maroon velvet photo album.

All in the Family

Nine-year-old Ursula and her mother, Clara Uphoff Cheshire, in front of their LA home. I love Clara's dress!

Nine-year-old Ursula and her mother, Clara Uphoff Cheshire, in front of their LA home. I love Clara’s dress!

Tucked between the album’s pages, I found several loose photographs from around the same time, all stamped “SEP 10 1911” on the back (which probably means they were processed, not necessarily taken, on that day). It looks like they may chronicle a multigenerational family gathering over at least a couple of days.

Matilda Denzer Uphoff, Ursula's maternal grandmother. Check out the fancy rope work on her dress.

Matilda Denzer Uphoff, Ursula’s maternal grandmother. Check out the fancy rope work on her dress.

I see 9-year-old Ursula and her mother, Clara, in two of the photos, but who are all the other people? Only Ursula’s maternal grandmother, Matilda Uphoff, is identified on the back of the photo of her standing outside at the Cheshires’ house. I’ve been doing a bit of detective work, and I think I know who everyone is in this collection of photos, except for, in the photo below, the woman at the back resting her chin on her hand, and the ghostly young girl at the far right!

I found my first clue to the identity of some of these folks in an item published in the “Society” column of the Los Angeles Times. Dated the same day as the photos, it read: “Mrs. Cheshire Entertains. Mrs. A.D. Cheshire of No. 1422 Malvern avenue [sic] entertained fifty guests Wednesday evening in honor of her mother, Mrs H. Uphoff, and her sisters, Miss Mathilde Uphoff and Mrs. C.R. Pemby, all of San Francisco.

A family gathering in Los Angeles in 1911

A family gathering in Los Angeles in 1911

I’m not sure at whose house they are gathered, as it is not the Cheshires’ Malvern Avenue home, but it may belong to the chin-in-hand lady, perhaps a family friend. Based on subsequent research described below, I believe this photo features (left to right) Ursula, Clara, Ursula’s Aunt Jeannette, little cousin Marion, unknown (chin-in-hand lady), Aunt Mathilde, Grandmother Matilda, unknown ghostly girl, and father Alfred. At first I thought Alfred was Ursula’s grandfather Herman Uphoff, but then I remembered he died in 1909, and on closer inspection, this man’s nose and hairline look a lot like Alfred’s as depicted in much earlier photos. He would have been 58 at this time.

Through scouring various resources provided by, including U.S. Census reports, California Death Index, Find a Grave Index and city directories, I have pieced together a narrative of Ursula’s immediate and extended family at that time, which helped me further figure out who was whom. It goes like this:

In September 1911 (the time the photos were most likely taken), Clara Uphoff Cheshire was 39, married to 58-year-old Alfred Cheshire, and mother to Ursula. Her father, Herman, had died two years earlier, and her widowed mother, Matilda (who lived to age 84), was 62 years old.  Clara’s siblings (Ursula’s aunts and uncle) were as follows:

  • 38-year-old widower Charles, a miner and father of 3-year-old Marion;
  • Mathilde, a single, 32-year-old public school teacher;
  • 31-year-old Jeannette, married to Charles R. Temby by October 1908, and mother to her first child, 16-month-old Randall, who must have been taking a nap when this photo was snapped! (Notice the LA Times misspelled Jeannette’s last name as “Pemby” in the above-mentioned news item);
  • Emma, 27, a single bookkeeper working in a physician’s office (who, apparently, did not come to LA for this family visit)

I believe the photo below depicts (left to right), Matilda, the matriarch of the family; Jeannette with her brother Charles’s daughter Marion on her shoulders (“Playing Horse”); and Mathilde. It took me a little while to decide which woman was Ursula’s Aunt Mathilde and which was Aunt Jeannette. I think it more likely that Jeannette is on the left because a) she looks more harried and physically more likely to have had a baby just over a year before than the more fresh-faced, small-wasted woman on the right; and b) when I blow up the photo, I can just barely make out a shape that looks like a ring on her “wedding” finger.

"Playing Horses": Ursula's grandmother, aunts and cousin

“Playing Horses”: Ursula’s grandmother, aunts and cousin

I think the little girl is Ursula’s cousin Marion, because she looks about 3 years old—the right age for her at that time—and because her father, Charles, was working as a miner and living in Nevada around that time. Since his wife, Grace Key, had died in 1909, possibly from complications of childbirth (as Marion had just been born in 1908), I imagine he left his daughter to the care of her aunts or grandparents while he was off making a living.

A family gathering in Los Angeles in 1911

A family gathering in Los Angeles in 1911

Back to the photo taken on the front porch…Notice that Aunt Mathilde is perusing what possibly could be a photo album, and it makes me wonder… is she is looking at some of the very same family pictures I have in this velvet-covered antique photo album (which, by the way, belonged to Ursula’s mother)? There’s that thread again, stretching from 1911 nearly 103 years to 2014. I can’t wait to see what I discover next!